NOTES ON CHARACTER-DRIVEN DIALOG

In Bird By BirdAnne Lamott tells us that, “One line of dialogue that rings true reveals character in a way that pages of description can’t.”

Absolutely true.

Each of your characters, like each of the people you know in the real world, should sound different. And in this case I don’t mean describing their voices as “booming” or “high-pitched,” but what they say and how they say it should be unique to them, to that character. Anne Lamott again:

…remember that you should be able to identify each character by what he or she says. Each one must sound different from the others. And they should not all sound like you; each one must have a self. If you can get their speech mannerisms right, you will know what they’re wearing and driving and thinking, and how they were raised, and what they feel.

This is something I see less experienced authors struggle with all the time. Everyone sounds the same, and it’s a pretty good guess that means they all sound like the author. Or, what might be worse: They all sound like the author thinks constitutes “good writing.” Maybe that author hasn’t yet scraped off all the damage from high school English classes that force a, well, for lack of a better term, forced formality.

Your English teacher probably told you that starting a sentence with However is good and starting a sentence with But is bad. But that never was a rule and few people actually start sentences with the word However… unless they’re intentionally trying to sound smart or formal. Is your the character in your story, in that moment, trying to sound smart or formal? Then However is your word. If not, But away, please.

Making each of what could be dozens and dozens of characters sound different is as big a challenge as it sounds, and one I’m not going to be able to completely explain in one blog post, but let’s look at a few things to keep in mind.

First of all, a lot of what we sound like, our word choices, vocabulary in general, colloquialisms, and so on, are regional. Not everyone from Boston sounds exactly the same but no one from Boston sounds like someone from New Orleans. Even if you’re writing fantasy in a completely invented world there can be regional dialects, yes? Characters from faraway lands who have only recently learned (name your language anything but) the common tongue might not always get the idiom. Playing with that takes dialog from just a way to get information across—the content of what they’re saying—to a richer experience in character and worldbuilding via how they say it.

Though I continue to see it all the time, even from authors I feel should know better published by publishers and journals I feel should know better, playing around with the spelling of words to convey an accent is a slippery slope starting with confusion and possibly dumping you out into racism and cultural insensitivity. Just so you know I’m not the only one who thinks so, in Making Shapely Fiction, Jerome Stern backed me up with:

…it is better to concentrate on rendering the rhythms, the architecture, the syntax of the dialect than to try to indicate pronunciation of individual words by changing spellings and using apostrophes. There are several reasons for that. English is orthographically too imprecise, so the misspellings often don’t indicate how the word is pronounced. Also misspellings seem to caricature the speakers, ’n fillin’ yuh tawk wit’ ’postrophes ’n stuff’s tew hahd tuh read. A particular offense is eye dialect, like writing enuff for enough, since it doesn’t change the pronunciation but implies that the speaker is ignorant and inferior.

So then one character is from a distant realm and has an accent. Great! Let’s see that in word choice and word order, not in “creative” spelling!

I bet we all know at least a few people with a distinctive rhythm to their speech, or a lack of rhythm. Not everyone speaks in complete sentences. We interrupt ourselves, lose track of what we were saying, and a lot of people have a tendency to mispronounce words (see above for cautions here) or use the wrong word. If a character trails off, end the sentence with ellipsis… If a character stops all of a sudden, end with an— If a character stutters within a singe word indicate that with a h-hyphen. If the character stutters the whole word that’s—that’s an em-dash. And, of course, use this with a gentle hand to it stays readable.

And we all have favorite words—words we drop in willy nilly, in places both appropriate and inappropriate, exacting and confusing. If every character has a couple go to words that can go a long way to making them sound like themselves. Ed Simon unpacked one of his own in “Who’s Afraid of Theory?”:

My favorite critical jargon word, however, is “liminal.” All of us who work on academic Grub Street have their foibles, the go-to scholarly tics marking their prose like an oily fingerprint left on Formica. We all know the professor with their favored jargon turn (often accompanied by an equivalent hand movement, like an intricate form of Neapolitan), or the faculty member who might be taken to yelling out “Hegemonic!” at inopportune times. Thus, I can’t help but sprinkle my own favored term into my writing like paprika in Budapest goulash. My love for the word, used to designate things that are in-between, transitioning, and not quite formed, has less to do with its utility than with the mysterious sense of the sounds that animate it. It’s always been oddly onomatopoeic to me, maybe because it’s a near homophone to “illuminate,” and makes me think of dusk, my favorite time of day. When I hear “liminal” it reminds me of moonbeams and cicadas at sunset; it reminds me that the morning star still endures even at dawn. An affection for the term has only a little to do with what’s useful about it, and everything to do with that connotative ladder that stretches out beyond its three syllables. I suspect that when we love these words, this jargon, it’s an attraction to their magic, the uncanny poetry hidden behind the seemingly technocratic. 

I say “right,” way too often at the end of sentences, probably because I need some reassurance that people are understanding me, right? Right.

And then there are commonplaces, the fun little idiomatic phrases we use without always realizing we’re using them. Yohei Igarashi explained this nicely in “The cliché writes back”:

The stylistic ideals of clarity and brevity exert far greater pressure on our writing than the need to adhere to traditional commonplaces. Even so, one of the stranger effects of contemporary language models is that they reveal to us that our plain style is itself full of highly probable phrases. They are perhaps less conspicuous than phrases such as ‘feathered friends’ or ‘smiling mornings’, but they’re no less likely—for example, ‘so far, so good’ or ‘unprecedented times’. In other words, our post-commonplace writing is actually full of commonplaces. And beneath our own stylistic commonplaces are strata upon strata of earlier commonplaces by which we organised and navigated the world.

This one can be a fun worldbuilding challenge. Where a human from Humanistan might refer to birds as “feathered friends,” a Dwarf from Deepunderground might call them “chirpy things.”

Those were terrible examples. Do better than that, but do it just the same!

Oh, and so much more… We could talk about this, in our own unique voices, forever. But let me end with a dash of hope from a Paris Review interview with Eudora Welty

In its beginning, dialogue’s the easiest thing in the world to write when you have a good ear, which I think I have. But as it goes on, it’s the most difficult, because it has so many ways to function. Sometimes I needed to make a speech do three or four or five things at once—reveal what the character said but also what he thought he said, what he hid, what others were going to think he meant, and what they misunderstood, and so forth—all in his single speech. And the speech would have to keep the essence of this one character, his whole particular outlook in concentrated form. This isn’t to say I succeeded. But I guess it explains why dialogue gives me my greatest pleasure in writing. I used to laugh out loud sometimes when I wrote it—the way P.G. Wodehouse is said to do. I’d think of some things my characters would say, and even if I couldn’t use it, I would write the scene out just to let them loose on something—my private show.

See? This might be hard but that doesn’t mean it can’t also be fun!

—Philip Athans

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NOTES ON CHARACTER-DRIVEN DIALOG